Although director François Ozon’s latest film Jeune & Jolie (Young and Beautiful) seems to begin as a simple coming-of-age tale, it rapidly descends into something far more uncomfortable. We first see 17-year-old Isabelle (played by a perfectly-cast Marine Vacth) as though spying on her at the beach – viewed through a pair of binoculars. And Jeune & Jolie‘s opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film; we follow Isabelle through the film with a certain voyeuristic, borderline obsessive pleasure. The French filmmaker described this as: “an ‘entomologist falling in love with the creature he’s following.”
Filmed over the course of four seasons, we see Isabelle experience the virgin-whore dichotomy; losing her virginity with an air of detached meticulousness and shortly after this, setting up a website on which to sell her body. Ozon does away with what an audience might consider the typical motivations that might encourage a woman to enter prostitution; Isabelle is from a middle class, liberal family and there are no external pressures from the likes of an abusive boyfriend or pimp. The question as to the lead’s motivation is left unanswered, though Isabelle’s reasons are hinted at. There’s an offhand suggestion from Isabelle’s step father that her extreme beauty somehow makes her choice inevitable, coupled with a classroom scene showing students studying Rimbaud’s poem ‘No one’s serious at seventeen’.
Arguably more interesting than Ozon’s interest in youthful recklessness and the effects of aesthetics is his exploration of the complexities of mother-daughter power dynamics. Isabelle’s mother (played by Geraldine Pailhas) by her own admission had a ‘wild youth’ and ironically considers her daughter as somewhat serious, overly studious and in need of recreational activity. Oh the irony! However, the close relationship between Isabelle and her younger brother is one of the most touching and sensitively played in the film.
As the narrative progresses, Ozon’s lack of criticism of the sex industry leaves him wide open to charges of male fantasy, however some may feel he escapes this this indictment by offering the viewer such a nuanced and composite script illuminated by the cast’s impressive performances. Personally, I felt that Jeune & Jolie‘s shots of stereotypical, clichéd sexual images – hotel room sex, post-coital cigarettes and Isabelle applying red lipstick – were ultimately serious shortcomings in the film.
Jeune & Jolie is thought-provoking and masterfully shot, of that there’s no doubt. And there’s a lovely – though predictable – soundtrack too; a different Françoise Hardy song underscores each changing season. However, a rather heavy-handed ending left me disappointed; ultimately the viewer should be the one to decide what to make of Isabelle’s journey – a courageous transgression?
Jeune & Jolie is released in the UK on November 29.